Here’s a bit of sad piece from AP (4/8/05)  on Lawyer Refuses to Apologize to Judge, Goes  to Jail.  Though details of the incident are sketchy, the article brought this question to my mind:  would you apologize when you don’t believe you were wrong to save your legal career?

According to the article, an Ohio lawyer will spend 36 more days in jail for contempt of court for refusing to apologize to a judge and accusing her of conspiring with the against his client.  The article reports that the lawyer insisted on representing a man charged with robbery and kidnapping even though the judge had appointed another lawyer.   The attorney challenged the judge’s ruling and at some point was held in contempt.  After spending three days in jail, the judge gave the lawyer an opportunity to apologize for what she called “unprofessional conduct.”  But the attorney opted to serve an additional 36 days, insisting that he had done nothing wrong and accusing the judge of collusion with the prosecutor to force his former client into a guilty plea.

There’s quite a bit that the article leaves out.  Significantly, I’d want to know whether the client had asked for another attorney or whether he had insisted that the original attorney continue to represent him.   Had the client requested the termination, the judge’s decision to appoint another lawyer, over the original attorney’s objection would have been correct.  On the other hand, the discharged attorney would have been right to insist on continuing to represent the client if that’s the wish his client expressed.

While I don’t condone accusing a judge of collusion, I also don’t think that it warrants 36 days in jail for contempt.  Seems to me that a reprimand from the bench or even a fine would have been a sufficient remedy.

And what about this apology business?  In reading through various grievance decisions, I’ve noticed that remorse will buy lawyers a lighter sentence – and lawyers should be remorseful when they’ve done wrong.  But what if a lawyer correctly believes he’s taken the right approach – as did the lawyer in this case (and again, not enough facts to make a judgment call here).  Should he insincerely apologize to save his livelihood (because you know there’s probably a grievance case being drafted as I type this up)?   Or stand firmly on principle?

In my younger days, I’d have supported the principled stand rather than a compromise apology.  Now, I’m not so sure.  After all, if you lose your license to practice law even as the result of an unjust decision, you likewise lose your ability to continue to work to change that system from within.  That’s not such a great outcome either.  But readers, why don’t you let me know what you think.